Sustainable healthy diet and yogurt

Sustainable healthy diets: understanding the barriers…

Best of posts 2021 - overcoming the barriers to sustainable healthy diets - YINI

In the beginning of this year, we get back to some interesting publications of 2021, which have explored the barriers to adopt healthy sustainable diets…

Adopting a healthy sustainable diet is not just about health and protecting the environment. It deals with choices in order to include foods that are available, affordable, and acceptable… and sometimes, this is not so easy according to recent publications.

  1. How can food systems be sustainable?

A food system includes all the activities and outputs that relate to the production, processing, distribution, preparation and consumption of food. The United Nations has recently described a sustainable food system as:

  • Productive and prosperous to ensure enough food
  • Healthy and nutritious
  • Equitable and inclusive, to ensure that everyone has access to food and people working within the food system can earn a living
  • Respectful and empowering, to ensure people can make their own choices and get involved in shaping the food system
  • Resilient (to ensure enough food when shocks and crises hit)
  • Regenerative (to ensure enough food now and for future generations) (1).

On a personal level, this approach of sustainability can be declined as a sustainable healthy diet, which can be defined as diets with low environmental impacts, which contribute to food and nutrition security and to healthy life for present and future generations.

Sustainable diets are:

  • protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems
  • culturally acceptable,
  • accessible, economically fair and affordable;
  • nutritionally adequate, safe and healthy;
  • while optimizing natural and human resources (2)

The Eat-Lancet reference diet (3) represents a healthy and sustainable global diet that can help to reduce diet-related greenhouse gas emission (GHGE). However, experts are concerned that many people around the world couldn’t afford to follow this type of diet (2).

  1. Did you know that nearly four in ten people in the world can’t afford a healthy diet?

Diets in many countries have transformed over the past 30 years alongside increases in industrialisation, economic growth and urbanization. They have shifted from traditional foods to increased consumption of :

  • highly processed foods, containing high levels of sugar, salt, unhealthy fats and chemical additives
  • and meat,

which has led to increases in malnutrition and diet-related diseases like cardiovascular diseases or, diabetes.

Nutrient-rich foods such as fruits and vegetables, fish, eggs and dairy are often more expensive than starchy staples and highly-processed foods because they are more difficult to produce, store and transport (4).

Changing the diet to follow more sustainable healthy diet involves eating more beans, fruit, vegetables, dairy, fish and chicken, and less red meat, high-fat/sugar/salt foods and oils.

It means a bigger spend on food for people on a low income (4). Being aware of local food habits and introducing feasible food shifts may help to ease costs,

  1. Balancing contradictions to make the right food choices

Although effects on health and the environment are important, the consumer’s choices are also driven by availability, affordability, personal preference, social circumstances and cultural influences. These aspects are essential when assessing sustainable healthy diets (1).

Choosing what food to buy is often a trade-off between conflicting influences. At the top of the list of priorities are price, health, taste, and time to prepare or procure food and it seams that price and convenience outweigh everything else when doing the food shop. And healthy foods are often viewed as a bit pricier than other options (5).

Nutrient-rich foods are often expensive and may have a high carbon footprint:  Animal-sourced foods like meat and dairy are nutrient-rich foods, but they have a high environmental impact. However livestock generate income and may also have other important social, cultural and economic value, especially in low- and middle-income countries.

The possible answers may lay on global food systems:

  • Supplementing low incomes, public investment to improve the overall efficiency of food systems,
  • supply chain innovations can help reduce costs to consumers.

But cost isn’t the only reason and cultural and social factors also play their part.

And on this aspect, one other way should be to be aware of local food habits and introducing feasible food shifts may help to ease costs.

… Stay tuned, in the next post, we will focus on the ways to act through local diets.

(1) Nicholls J, Drewnowski A. Toward sociocultural indicators of sustainable healthy diets. Sustainability. 2021;13(13):7226.
 (2) Verly-Jr E, Martins de Carvalho A, Lobo Marchioni DM et al. The cost of eating more sustainable diets: A nutritional and environmental diet optimisation study. Glob Public Health. 2021 Mar 15;1-14. 
(3) Willett W et al . Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT-Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems. Lancet. 2019 Feb 2;393(10170):447-492
 (4) Fanzo J, Rudie C, Sigman I et al. Sustainable Food Systems and Nutrition in the 21st Century: A report from the 22nd Annual Harvard Nutrition Obesity Symposium. Am J Clin Nutr. 2021 Sep 15;nqab315. doi: 10.1093/ajcn/nqab315.
(5) Fox EL, Davis C, Downs SM, McLaren R, Fanzo J. A focused ethnographic study on the role of health and sustainability in food choice decisions. Appetite. 2021. Oct 1;165:105319.

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